Great news? Are they serious?

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The Independent Online

Perhaps his judgement was clouded by relief, in what must surely rank as the worst week of his premiership. But Tony Blair's enthusiastic response to the news of the violent deaths of Saddam Hussein's sons, his 14-year-old grandson and a bodyguard, struck a jarring note. In marked contrast to his Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, who clearly felt that triumphalism should be avoided, Mr Blair welcomed their demise as "great news". His reaction came at the end of a tour of the Far East where he was ambushed by Chinese students, who ended a discussion by asking him to sing for them, a buck he promptly passed to his wife, Cherie.

It is possible to feel some sympathy for Mrs Blair, who had no time to consider before launching into a Beatles song, while also thinking that the incident was inappropriate in the midst of such sombre events - the suicide of Dr David Kelly and its aftermath - at home. Her performance came before news of the savage gun battle in Mosul that ended the lives of Uday, Qusay and Mustafa Hussein, but it reinforces the impression that leading figures in the Government simply do not know how to react to violent death. The Prime Minister should have resisted the request, just as the Defence Secretary, Geoff Hoon, should have thought twice before attending a grand prix last weekend, only two days after Dr Kelly, a scientist in his department, was found dead.

By the end of the week, after a bruising press conference from which he had to be rescued by Mr Straw, Mr Hoon looked chastened. So he should, but by then his boss and the American president were creating widespread revulsion by openly gloating over the deaths in Iraq. At times like this, it is impossible not to recall that Mr Blair and his US counterpart are Christians and to observe that their response to recent events has a distinct whiff about it of Old Testament vengeance. This is not to suggest that the Hussein brothers were nice people, but it is to question both the morality of rejoicing over fallen enemies and Donald Rumsfeld's decision to release gruesome photographs of the dead men to the world's press.

Has the US Defence Secretary forgotten the outrage that followed the parading on television of the corpses of American soldiers by the Somali warlord Mohammed Aideed in 1993? It was that single act which turned the American public decisively against overseas intervention in Africa, and made President Clinton unwilling to send US troops to halt the massacres in Rwanda only a year later. Rumsfeld's appalling decision is not even likely to have the desired effect: on Friday, as doubt was cast on the identity of the corpses, the Americans allowed camera crews to film them, after engaging in a macabre exercise to "restore" the faces and make them look more like Saddam's hated sons.

The fact that Americans forces stormed the villa where the men were hiding, as if they were taking part in a wild west shoot-out, has spawned dozens of conspiracy theories. If the coalition remains convinced about the existence of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction, why did it not try harder to capture and interrogate his younger son and designated heir, Qusay? It may be that the brothers would have resisted a long siege, but that is no excuse for not making every effort to persuade them to surrender. Justice, which means putting people on trial for crimes against humanity and forcing them to confront the families of their victims, is always preferable to retribution.

Mr Bush and Mr Blair may inhabit a world of Manichean certainties, where Saddam Hussein and his family represent an "evil" regime and deserve what is coming to them. But it is worth recalling that the British and American governments, at the end of the Second World War, chose to put leading Nazis on trial instead of subjecting them to summary execution. Mr Bush and Mr Blair seem to be regressing in moral terms, and some Middle Easterners are already starting to suggest that there is one rule for Europeans (and, of course, Americans) and another for Arabs.

"I am not rejoicing," Mr Straw said pointedly on Wednesday, even though he went on to describe the dead brothers as psychopaths. He at least seems to be aware that the moment we start exulting in violent death, we lose a bit of our own humanity.